Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border

Migrant Girl: The Story Behind the Viral Photo

Photographer John Moore, who took the picture that has come to symbolize the zero-tolerance policy, reveals what happened that night.

In just a few short days, photographer John Moore's heartbreaking image of a 2-year-old Honduran asylum-seeker crying for her mother at the U.S.-Mexico border has become the hard-to-look-at symbol of President Trump's new zero-tolerance immigration policy — one that has resulted in the separation of at least 2,000 children from their parents since it went into effect in April.

Moore, a Pulitzer Prize winner and special correspondent for Getty Images (which owns FOTO), has been documenting the immigrant experience for a decade, riding along with both Border Patrol agents and immigrant trains in order to get the story. Here, he tells FOTO about the June 12 ride-along that resulted in the emblematic picture — not to mention the other heartbreaking photos he captured of this mother and child.

BEARING WITNESS John Moore/Getty Images BEARING WITNESS Moore's ride-along with Border Patrol agents took him to the banks of the Rio Grande River on the outskirts of McAllen, Texas. The 2,000-mile-long river forms more than half of the U.S.-Mexico border and crossing it presents a daunting final hurdle before immigrants can step onto U.S. soil. "I had requested [access] a couple weeks ago, because of the Trump administration’s new 'zero-tolerance' approach to border immigration," Moore explains. "During the course of my visit, I photographed agents chasing immigrants through sugar cane fields and observed immigrants crossing over from Mexico by raft. I also photographed agents taking into custody many Central American families who had arrived to seek political asylum." THE FACES OF IMMIGRATION John Moore/Getty Images THE FACES OF IMMIGRATION One of those families was a 2-year-old Honduran girl and her mother, who had travelled some 1,500 miles from home to seek asylum. "The mother told me they had been traveling for a full month and were exhausted," says Moore, who speaks Spanish. "They were taken into custody with a group of about 20 immigrants, mostly women and children, at about 11 p.m."

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SEPARATION ANXIETY John Moore/Getty Images SEPARATION ANXIETY But before the child and her mother could be transported to a Customs and Border Protection processing center, Border Patrol agents had to execute a search of the mother. "She was told to set the child down, while she was searched," Moore tells FOTO. "The little girl immediately started crying. It's not uncommon for toddlers to feel separation anxiety, but this would have been stressful for any child." All of this happens while remaining just inches from her mother; the picture, of course, forces anyone seeing it to imagine the anxiety that a complete physical separation would cause. OFFERING COMFORT John Moore/Getty Images OFFERING COMFORT "I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself," says Moore. "Then very quickly, they were in the van, and I stopped to take a few deep breaths." A POLICY CHANGE John Moore/Getty Images A POLICY CHANGE Many asylum seekers come from Central America's Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — where violence is rampant. (El Salvador and Honduras were among the top five countries with the highest violent death rates in 2016.) And while the approval rate for asylum requests has been declining over the past few years, those numbers will surely decrease even further following Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent ruling on asylum claims. Since the families had been traveling for a month, says Moore, "I'm sure none of them had heard of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' comments saying that gang and domestic violence would no longer be considered as valid reasons to seek political asylum in the U.S." THE NEXT STOP John Moore/Getty Images THE NEXT STOP While Moore doesn't know what became of the 2-year-old Honduran girl and her mother, it's likely they will end up at a detention facility like this one in McAllen, where Moore photographed another young Honduran in 2014. "It's always sensitive photographing kids," Moore told FOTO earlier this year. "I try and make sure that I respect the privacy and the dignity of these undocumented children, just as I would with children who were American citizens." Images like this one have spurred an outcry among many Americans, who are calling for the government to stop housing immigrant children in caged facilities. ONE OF MANY John Moore/Getty Images ONE OF MANY While Moore's image of the little girl in pink became instantly emblematic of the immigrant's struggle — whether due to the child's-eye view, her look of pure anguish, the moody lighting, or a combination of all three — the photographer saw many other young children and parents expressing fear and desperation during his June 12 trip. "Most of these families were scared, to various degrees," Moore recalls. "I doubt any of them had ever done anything like this before – flee their home countries with their children, traveling thousands of miles through dangerous conditions to seek political asylum in the United States, many arriving in the dead of night... I could see on their faces that they had no idea what could possibly happen."

OVERCOME WITH EMOTION



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